January 14 2021 Edition
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By the Way
We honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week. And what do we tell each other this year, as we think of him? The House voted to impeach the president this afternoon for the second time, the Senate will face the question tomorrow, and no one is surprised.

As I look ahead tonight, I remember Ross Gay telling the story of the fig tree on 9th and Christian in Philadelphia. The tree shouldn’t have been able to grow so far north, he said, but it was thick with fruit, and when he met the woman sweeping the sidewalk clear, she let him pick.

He had more than he could carry, and people gathered around him. He reached figs down for her. He handed them to people who stopped on the street. They were ripe, silk he said, velvet, sweet.

It was a spring night over at Bennington College (where they’re holding their annual writers week right now online) when I heard him read that poem aloud. It was an unexpected moment. He was walking the city street, taken up with hard thoughts, and then — here was a woman older than his mother and a seed someone planted in a place with few trees, and he was picking figs with juice and sweat on his hands. The taste of them woke him up …

“… pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night …”

Figs are powerful fruit, I'm told, in the lands they're native to — and I’m thinking of the resilience and the pain in this story, and the generosity and self-sufficiency across generations. One of my interns made me realize this summer how rare it is for many people in this country today, and especially people of color, to have a garden, or a fruit tree, or land to plant a fig seed on.

Tonight I remember listening when Ross Gay spoke with me, and reading the poem for the first time in his Catalog of unabashed gratitude when it made finalist for the national book award. I loved the guts and mud and joy in his book, although I didn’t understand then even as much as I do now of the loss and anger and determination that move with them. I am still trying to learn.

Dr. King would not be surprised this week. He saw it coming in 1963. I can imagine him if he were alive today, 92 and speaking as an elder — standing firm as the events of last week and this week build momentum — recalling vivid memories of Birmingham, when he came as a peaceful protestor:

“I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.”

This isn’t news to him. He traces the debates we’re having now and even the words we’re using, in 1963 and in 1619, and I see them repeating now, as I hear people asking why are we still here? This week I saw that our local Community Read of Souls of Black Folk had reached chapter 9, and I opened my copy to find W.E.B. DuBois talking about communication.

“… between these two worlds, despite much physical contact and daily intermingling, there is almost no community of intellectual life or point of transference where the thoughts and feelings of one … can come into direct contact and sympathy with the thoughts and feelings of the other.”

Couldn’t he be talking about social media today?

In this essay, he’s talking about the value of learning and skill and intelligence. He had fought for them in his own life. He was 35 when he wrote this passage, a professor at Atlanta University, travelling to international conferences. He had studied at Fisk University in Atlanta and become the first black man to earn a Ph.D from Harvard.

He had also taught in rural Tennessee. He had grown up working to support his mother and his family after his father left home. He sees the pressures of living with poverty and violence and the cycles they can cause.

I hear in him the passion of an intelligent man who wants ardently to stretch his mind and to be all he has in him to be. It is hard to live in a world that tells you not to think. Not to find center and balance and strength. Not to love. And he may not have been writing that essay for me, but I am thankful that it gives me a point of transference, a point of contact with his thoughts and feelings.

They move me, and my world is richer because I can walk the path at his boyhood home and think of the world he imagined. It's richer because I can talk with Toshi Reagon about her compositions to Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, and not only because her music is achingly beautiful, and not only because I feel stronger when I listen to her, but because she sees the world strongly, cleanly, clearly, and changes it for the better.

In Birmingham on that raw April day, Dr. King wrote, “… Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation.” Maybe the clearest thing I can answer this week is I hear you. — By the Way Berkshires


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